Critic’s Notebook: Peter Martins and City Ballet Over 30 Seasons

June 12th, 2013

Paula Lobo for The New York Times

Members of New York City Ballet in “Year of the Rabbit,” choreographed by Justin Peck at the David H. Koch Theater.

The 2012-13 season of New York City Ballet that ended at the David H. Koch Theater was a milestone in several ways. At age 66, Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief, has weathered 30 years at its helm. He may well end up lasting longer than the 35 years enjoyed by the company’s founding ballet master, George Balanchine. In the past year Mr. Martins has also presented three world premieres by a new choreographer, Justin Peck. All of them — “In Creases,” “Year of the Rabbit” and “Paz de la Jolla” — are at least good; and “Rabbit” really does seem to be the most exciting new ballet since Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH.”

Mr. Martins’s 30th season, more than most, also showed how puzzling a figure he is. As a ballet master he directs the company’s teaching, the choice of each season’s repertory from its unmatched treasury of ballets by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and the way those ballets are rehearsed and cast. He decides which choreographers are to make each season’s several premieres, which dancers are to join the ranks and which are to be promoted. In each of these departments it’s easy — and often right — to find serious fault with him. And yet many of the world’s most remarkable dance performances occur under his watch.

The number of bad ballets he has commissioned has been high. Nevertheless, it’s for his City Ballet that Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, the most in-demand ballet choreographers today, have made their finest work. This is unlikely to be an accident. We keep waiting for these men to surpass their best City Ballet creations elsewhere — Mr. Wheeldon is in residence at the Royal Ballet in London, Mr. Ratmansky at American Ballet Theater — but so far that hasn’t happened. Now the company has produced Mr. Peck too.

Mr. Martins has long been castigated as a choreographer. All too many of his pieces are both heartless and sketchy. During May and June, though, four of his ballets — “Calcium Light Night” (1977), “Barber Violin Concerto” (1988), “River of Light” (1998) and “Hallelujah Junction” (2001) — rewarded our attention and stimulated dancers. True, all his work feels merely professional and efficient; but there’s much he knows about dance-making that several far better choreographers have never learned. He can give wings to an important individual dancer; his pas de deux can be occasions for real drama; his uses of stage geometries and light can be potent.

What’s more, those four Martins ballets and two of Mr. Peck’s were given to American scores. (And the other — Mr. Peck’s most recent work, “Paz de la Jolla” — is to a score that the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu wrote in California.) American music has been a Martins policy all along. The company’s 1988 American Music Festival seemed laden with objectionable premieres at the time; yet it was commemorated this spring. Twenty-five years on, Mr. Martins can point to a string of ballets on which he and other company choreographers have worked with American composers: John Adams, Michael Torke, Charles Wuorinen and now Sufjan Stevens, whose music Mr. Peck employs in “Rabbit.”

Policy or gimmick? The Martins regime has been widely accused of gimmickry. If the choreographer Mark Morris were to present an American Music Festival — I hope one day he does — it would self-evidently be a statement of belief: He’s made many of his most imaginative works to music by Virgil Thomson, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and others. By contrast, Mr. Martins’s works to American music never seem driven by conviction. Yet even if American music is one of Mr. Martins’s attention-grabbing devices, now we have Mr. Peck choreographing fresh, vital, skilled pieces to scores by Mr. Stevens and Philip Glass. All three Peck ballets seem to be views of American people in American space.

So why will only one of these Peck works (“Rabbit”) be revived in the 2013-14 season? And why for only two shows? It’s good that Mr. Peck will also make a new work to a commissioned score by Mr. Stevens; but more familiarity with these recent Peck creations would help us all. In his 20s, he’s still dancing a range of corps and solo roles; nobody wants him to be overburdened with commissions. But “In Creases,” despite its ill-advised costumes, is a piece many of us long to know better.

Mr. Martins’s policies are at their most perplexing in the way the company dances Balanchine. It’s baffling that several dancers — Megan Fairchild, Rebecca Krohn, Ask La Cour, Abi Stafford and Jonathan Stafford — were made principals. Useful executants, they’re not remotely authoritative. They neither own their own space nor light up the space beyond themselves. (I would add the generally bland Ana Sophia Scheller to that list but for the élan she brought to the “Embraceable You” role of “Who Cares?” on Friday.)

In this season’s best performances, four highly individual ballerinas — Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, and Teresa Reichlen — kept extending their range, reaching new peaks of musicality, stage artistry and individual style. Among the company’s men, Robert Fairchild has become one of the most lovable and impressive dancers in America. Among the company’s other men, the young Chase Finlay — a principal since February — is evidently still learning, but his blend of seriousness, bloom, nobility and amplitude make him continually eye-catching.

But is there a single woman beneath principal rank who could light up Balanchine’s most exalted roles? These roles depict elusive, independent, challenging and inspiring women. Yet for the women in the City Ballet of Mr. Martins, few hurdles are harder than the task of shaking off girlishness. He allows a handful of them to grow into true artists, but elsewhere he gives us a company in which many dancers inhabit a state of perpetually arrested development. After 30 years it seems unlikely that Mr. Martins wants it otherwise.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.